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The fight goes on in Tibet's toehold in India

October 31, 2010

Matt Wade
The Age
October 30, 2010

Former Tibetan monk Yeshi Dhamdu admits that passion for the freedom
struggle is hard to sustain far from home. TOP: Life goes on in the
traditional way in ''Little Lhasa''.

Former Tibetan monk Yeshi Dhamdu admits that passion for the freedom
struggle is hard to sustain far from home. TOP: Life goes on in the
traditional way in ''Little Lhasa''. Photo: Jason South

BETWEEN a holy river and a dusty highway on Delhi's northern fringe
is an unlikely slice of Tibet.

Little Lhasa, as locals call Delhi's Tibetan Refugee Colony, stands
out amid the city's concrete sprawl.

Fluttering prayer flags festoon its buildings and billboards extol
Tibet's monastic megastar, the Dalai Lama. Buddhist monks in maroon
and saffron robes wander Little Lhasa's alleys and eateries with
names like ''Hot Yak Cafe'' and ''Tibetan Voice'' serve up bread
dumplings and yak tea.

Tibetans have been fleeing Chinese occupation since the late 1950s
and more than 100,000 are now believed to live in India. Some have
settled in the northern hill station of Dharamsala, where the Dalai
Lama and the Tibetan government in exile are based. But thousands
have drifted south, to cities such as Delhi.

"Free Tibet" slogans on banners and T-shirts for sale in Delhi's
Little Lhasa are a reminder of the community's five-decade campaign
for an autonomous homeland.

But some residents, such as former Tibetan monk Yeshi Dhamdu, admit
that passion for the freedom struggle is hard to sustain far from home.

As a teenager he was radicalised during the four years he lived in a
Tibetan monastery and took to the streets in Lhasa to protest against
Chinese occupation. In 1989 he was arrested and claims to have been
tortured by his Chinese captors and jailed for six years. After his
release, Yeshi, now 42, escaped to India via Nepal and eventually
settled in Delhi.

He admits his zeal for Tibetan independence has waned. "When I was in
Tibet there was great enthusiasm for protest. Now I'm less concerned
about free Tibet. We just don't get so hot about it any more.''

Yeshi and his Indian-born Tibetan wife have two children and run a
clothing store in Little Lhasa. During his daily visit to a Buddhist
temple he often prays that Tibet will be free.

But Yeshi is deeply pessimistic about a return to his homeland, "but
I would go if it became fully independent''. Residents of Delhi's
Little Lhasa appreciate India's tolerance of Tibetan asylum seekers.

"In Tibet we don't feel free to fully express our own culture but
here we can," says Khyentse Rinchin, a traditional Tibetan musician
and former monk who fled 15 years ago. But refugees in India live in
a legal limbo.

"When it comes to owning properties or businesses, Tibetans do face
problems," says Choechung Wangchuk, a Delhi-based member of the
Tibetan government in exile's parliament and executive director of
the Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre. These
difficulties mean most of the buildings in Little Lhasa are owned and
run by Tibetan cultural institutions, not individuals.

Even so, many Tibetans have found jobs in service industries such as
call centres, hospitals and restaurants. Local cheap-eat guides
recommend Little Lhasa as a place to get tasty, low-cost food.
Tibetans are also well known for the temporary stalls they set up in
cities and towns across north India each winter selling woollens and
warm clothing.

Up to 10,000 Tibetan refugees live in Delhi, most of them in Little
Lhasa, which started as a makeshift refugee camp on a rubbish tip
beside the Yamuna River in the 1970s.

India's biggest Tibetan community, numbering about 30,000, is in the
state of Karnataka in the far south. The state government allocated
land for Tibetans after a surge in asylum seekers in the early 1960s.

However, the Indian government's decision to grant asylum to the
Dalai Lama after he escaped from Tibet in 1959 continues to aggravate
relations between Beijing and Delhi. The lingering sensitivity was
underscored last week when India's Foreign Office reportedly blocked
plans by Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University to confer an
honorary doctorate on the Tibetan spiritual leader because it did not
want to upset China.

Refugees in India can do little but watch, wait and maybe join the odd protest.

"Tibetans in exile keep their eye on what is going on inside Tibet,
what the Chinese are doing and what is the ground reality,'' says
Choechung Wangchuk.

"In the meantime, Tibetans get on with their lives - they have to."
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